by Len Lear
Mt. Airy novelist Janet Mason, 56, is one half of one of the first gay couples in Pennsylvania to be legally married. “I married my partner several years ago in Montgomery County,” she said, “where the judge, D. Bruce Hanes, went renegade in 2013 before the Supreme Court decision this past year that made gay marriage the law of the land. So my partner, Barbara, and I are in an interesting position of being virtual newlyweds who have been together 31 years.”
But that is by no means Mason’s only newsworthy distinction. In 2012 she wrote a memoir, “Tea Leaves, A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters,” which her publisher, Bella Books, maintained was the first LGBT (Lesbian/Gay/Bi-sexual/Transgendered) nonfiction book in over a decade to address directly the issues of caring for elderly parents. “Out and Aging,” a 2006 report, found that 36 percent of LGBT Boomers are caring for aging parents.
One significant reason why a higher percentage of gays care for aging parents than heterosexuals is that gays are less likely to have children of their own to care for, freeing them up to spend more time and resources on their own elderly parents. “Tea Leaves” begins when the author’s mother, Jane, is diagnosed with fourth-stage cancer in 1993. A dutiful daughter, Mason proceeds to take care of her mother, 74, and enters a deeper understanding of her own life through her mother’s stories.
Her grandmother (born in 1899) was a white glove-wearing lady of her generation, and Janet’s mother (born in 1920) was an office worker and feminist ahead of her time. The narrator took the foundation of her mother’s life and forged her own. “Tea Leaves” is a story of gender and class, identity and sexuality but, most of all, it is about love.
“Tea Leaves” has done “pretty well” since its publication four years ago. “I heard at a writer’s conference that the average small press author can expect to receive six reviews,” said Janet last week. “At another authors’ panel in Philadelphia, I met an academic, probably in his mid-30s, who told me that when he had a book published, he expected a great fanfare, but there was nothing.
“You have to get out and push your book, which I did. Instead of the six reviews, which I would’ve received through the publisher had I done nothing, I had more than 60 reviews and interviews, including the one that you did in the Chestnut Hill Local, one of my earliest interviews and one of my favorites.
“I had more than 60 reviews and interviews in print, online and on the radio internationally. In retrospect, I see it was because the book was about my mother and the generations of the women — and also about my father — who generally have not been written about because they were factory workers and laborers. (I am the first in my family to graduate from college.) It has been very rewarding for me to hear from readers who wrote to me and told me about their own experiences with their mothers.”
“Tea Leaves” also received a “Goldie” award from the Golden Crown Literary Society, and Janet received an extremely prestigious Pushcart Prize nomination recently “out of the blue” from a publication called aaduna (aaduna.org), which published an excerpt from Janet’s novel that she is currently revising titled “She and He.”
The novel is inspired by the Bible, goddess-oriented cultures in ancient Babylon, Janet’s practice of Buddhist mediation and her reading on transgender issues. Many of the characters are intersexed (born with both male and female sex characteristics). The excerpt published in aaduna is titled “The Mother.”
Mason is also a lay minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration on Stenton Avenue in Mt. Airy. “I was raised secular,” she said, “so when I did join a church in my mid-50s, I did so with some trepidation. It’s a great congregation, a friendly and diverse group of people, and that diversity includes religious backgrounds and practices as well as everything else, including race and age and sexual orientation.”
Janet has also always been interested in Paris in the 1920s, particularly the Left Bank. The novel she’s currently working on is titled “Looking At Pictures,” so she insists that “I’ll be in Paris in the ‘20s by Springtime!” (If Janet could meet anyone from the past, it would be Gertrude Stein, who is always associated with Paris in the 1920s.)
Janet is also an unofficial cheerleader for Mt. Airy. “I really love Mt. Airy,” she said. “I grow pumpkins, squash and dill, among other vegetables and flowers, in the backyard. My partner Barbara is a great cook. It’s wonderful having nature around us. The people are great, too!”
Who are Janet’s favorite writers? “I love Willa Cather’s sense of place and Zora Neale Hurston’s flawless prose. I’ve always thought Truman Capote, whose mentor was Willa Cather, was just a brilliant writer. He also had a great sense of humor. James Baldwin let me see America through the eyes of a brilliant black gay man who lived in Paris before and during the Civil Rights movement. He was a virtuoso of a writer and a great thinker.”